NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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With Lobster Poacher Caught, NOAA Fishes out Illegal Traps from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

This is a post by Katie Wagner of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

On June 26, 2014, metal sheets, cinder blocks, and pieces of lumber began rising to the ocean’s surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This unusual activity marked the beginning of a project to remove materials used as illegal lobster fishing devices called “casitas” from sanctuary waters. Over the course of two months, the NOAA-led restoration team plans to visit 297 locations to recover and destroy an estimated 300 casitas.

NOAA’s Restoration Center is leading the project with the help of two contractors, Tetra Tech and Adventure Environmental, Inc. The removal effort is part of a criminal case against a commercial diver who for years used casitas to poach spiny lobsters from sanctuary waters. An organized industry, the illegal use of casitas to catch lobsters in the Florida Keys not only impacts the commercial lobster fishery but also injures seafloor habitat and marine life.

Casitas—Spanish for “little houses”—do not resemble traditional spiny lobster traps made of wooden slats and frames. “Casitas look like six-inch-high coffee tables and can be made of various materials,” explains NOAA marine habitat restoration specialist Sean Meehan, who is overseeing the removal effort.

The legs of the casitas can be made of treated lumber, parking blocks, or cinder blocks. Their roofs often are made of corrugated tin, plastic, quarter-inch steel, cement, dumpster walls, or other panel-like structures.

Poachers place casitas on the seafloor to attract spiny lobsters to a known location, where divers can return to quite the illegal catch.

A spiny lobster in a casita on the seafloor.

A spiny lobster in a casita. (NOAA)

“Casitas speak to the ecology and behavior of these lobsters,” says Meehan. “Lobsters feed at night and look for places to hide during the day. They are gregarious and like to assemble in groups under these structures.” When the lobsters are grouped under these casitas, divers can poach as many as 1,500 in one day, exceeding the daily catch limit of 250.

In addition to providing an unfair advantage to the few criminal divers using this method, the illegal use of casitas can harm the seafloor environment. A Natural Resource Damage Assessment, led by NOAA’s Restoration Center in 2008, concluded that the casitas injured seagrass and hard bottom areas, where marine life such as corals and sponges made their home. The structures can smother corals, sea fans, sponges, and seagrass, as well as the habitat that supports spiny lobster, fish, and other bottom-dwelling creatures.

Casitas are also considered marine debris and potentially can harm other habitats and organisms. When left on the ocean bottom, casitas can cause damage to a wider area when strong currents and storms move them across the seafloor, scraping across seagrass and smothering marine life.

“We know these casitas, as they are currently being built, move during storm events and also can be moved by divers to new areas,” says Meehan. However, simply removing the casitas will allow the seafloor to recover and support the many marine species in the sanctuary.

There are an estimated 1,500 casitas in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters, only a portion of which will be removed in the current effort. In this case, a judge ordered the convicted diver to sell two of his residences to cover the cost of removing hundreds of casitas from the sanctuary.

To identify the locations of the casitas, NOAA’s Hydrographic Systems and Technology Program partnered with the Restoration Center and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In a coordinated effort, the NOAA team used Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (underwater robots) to conduct side scan sonar surveys, creating a picture of the sanctuary’s seafloor. The team also had help finding casitas from a GPS device confiscated from the convicted fisherman who placed them in the sanctuary.

After the casitas have been located, divers remove them by fastening each part of a casita’s structure to a rope and pulley mechanism or an inflatable lift bag used to float the materials to the surface. Surface crews then haul them out of the water and transport them to shore where they can be recycled or disposed.

For more information about the program behind this restoration effort, visit NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

Katie Wagner.Katie Wagner is a communications specialist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Her work raises the visibility of NOAA’s effort to protect and restore coastal and marine resources following oil spills, releases of hazardous substances, and vessel groundings.


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Follow Along with the State Department’s Our Ocean 2014 Conference

Jellyfish swiming near a harbor bottom.

A brown sea nettle (Chrysaora fuscescens) drifting through Monterey Harbor in California. (NOAA)

You already know how much the ocean does for you and how important it is to both celebrate and protect it. The U.S. Department of State also realizes this importance and, as a result, is hosting the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC from June 16–17, 2014. According to ourocean2014.state.gov:

We will bring together individuals, experts, practitioners, advocates, lawmakers, and the international ocean and foreign policy communities to gather lessons learned, share the best science, offer unique perspectives, and demonstrate effective actions. We aim to chart a way forward, working individually and together, to protect “Our Ocean.”

Watch a message about the conference and find out how you can help from Secretary of State John Kerry:

Marine pollution, a topic NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is very concerned about, is one of three core areas the conference aims to address, along with ocean acidification and sustainable fisheries. When a plastic bag or cigarette butt blows into a river, it can end up flowing to the ocean, where it endangers marine life. The problem is global, but mitigation is local. It’s in our hands to reduce marine debris—our trash in our ocean—at its source. Learn more about the debris filling our seas by reading about the challenges and solutions in this Our Ocean conference document [PDF], by visiting marinedebris.noaa.gov, and by watching the video below:

On the Our Ocean 2014 website, you also can submit your own pledge to protect the ocean, whether that means volunteering to clean up a beach or tracing the sustainability of the seafood you eat. Plus, you can show your support for the ocean by sharing a photo that inspires your dedication to our ocean. (If you’re looking for inspiration, try the images in our Flickr stream.) The State Department says all you have to do to participate is:

Post your photo to your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #OurOcean2014 or add it to the OurOcean2014 group on Flickr.  We will be keeping an eye out for photos using the hashtag and will choose some of the photos to be featured at the Our Ocean conference in Washington on June 16-17.

Check out the program schedule and watch the conference streaming live starting at 9:30 a.m. Eastern on Monday and Tuesday at state.gov/ourocean.


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April Showers Bring … Marine Debris to Pacific Northwest Beaches?

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

Over the last few weeks, emergency managers in coastal Washington and Oregon have noted an increase in the marine debris arriving on our beaches. Of particular note, numerous skiffs potentially originating from the Japan tsunami in March 2011 have washed up. Four of these boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone.

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

As an oceanographer at NOAA, I have been trying to answer this question by examining how patterns of wind and currents in the North Pacific Ocean change with the seasons and what that means for marine debris showing up on Pacific Northwest beaches.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with It?

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

These winter storms are associated with the weather phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low,” a low pressure system of air rotating counter-clockwise, which is usually located near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In winter, the Aleutian Low intensifies and moves southward from Alaska, bringing wind and rain to the Pacific Northwest. During late spring, the Aleutian Low retreats to the northwest and becomes less intense. Around the same time, a high pressure system located off California known as the “North Pacific High” advances north up the West Coast, generating drier summer weather and winds from the northwest.

Graphic showing the typical summer and winter locations of pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean.

The typical location of the pressure systems in the North Pacific Ocean in winter and summer. “AL” refers to the low-pressure “Aleutian Low” and “NPH” refers to the high-pressure “North Pacific High” system. Used with permission of Jennifer Galloway, Marine Micropaleontology (2010). *See full credit below.

This summer change to winds coming from the northwest also brings a transition from “downwelling” to “upwelling” conditions in the ocean. Upwelling occurs when surface water near the shore is moved offshore and replaced by nutrient-rich water moving to the surface from the ocean depths, which fuels an increase in growth and reproduction of marine life.

The switch from a winter downwelling state to a summer upwelling state is known as the “spring transition” and can occur anytime between March and June. Oceanographers and fisheries managers are often particularly interested in the timing of this spring transition because, in general, the earlier the transition occurs, the greater the ecosystem productivity will be that year—see what this means for Pacific Northwest salmon. As we have seen this spring, the timing may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches.

Why Is More Marine Debris Washing up This Year?

NOAA has been involved in modeling the movement of marine debris generated by the March 2011 Japan tsunami for several years. We began this modeling to answer questions about when the tsunami debris would first reach the West Coast of the United States and which regions might be impacted. The various types of debris are modeled as “particles” originating in the coastal waters of Japan, which are moved under the influence of winds and ocean currents. For more details on the modeling, visit the NOAA Marine Debris website.

The estimated arrival of modeled "particles" (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on the West Coast of the United States between May 2011 and May 2014.

The estimated arrival of modeled “particles” (representing Japanese tsunami marine debris) on Washington and Oregon shores between May 2011 and May 2014. (NOAA)

The figure here shows the percentage of particles representing Japan tsunami debris reaching the shores of Washington and Oregon over the last two years. The first of the model’s particles reached this region’s shores in late fall and early winter of 2011–2012. This is consistent with the first observations of tsunami debris reaching the coast, which were primarily light, buoyant objects such as large plastic floats, which “feel” the winds more than objects that float lower in the water, and hence move faster. The largest increases in model particles reaching the Pacific Northwest occur in late winter and spring (the big jumps in vertical height on the graph). After the spring transition and the switch to predominantly northwesterly winds and upwelling conditions, very few particles come ashore (where the graph flattens off).

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April). Their timing of the spring transition for the past three years, estimated using a time series of wind measured offshore of Newport, Oregon, is shown by the black vertical lines in the figure.

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

*Pressure system graphic originally found in: Favorite, F.A., et al., 1976. Oceanography of the subarctic Pacific region, 1960–1971. International North Pacific Fisheries Commission Bulletin 33, 1–187. Referenced in and with permission of: Galloway, J.M., et al., 2010. A high-resolution marine palynological record from the central mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada: Evidence for a mid-late Holocene dry climate interval. Marine Micropaleontology 75, 62–78.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


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“Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” Exhibit Puts Ocean Trash on Display in Alaska

Last summer, we heard from the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Peter Murphy as he accompanied other scientists, artists, and educators on the Gyre Expedition, a 500-mile-long collaborative research cruise around the Gulf of Alaska. Along the way, Murphy and the scientists would stop periodically to survey and collect marine debris that had washed on shore.

Meanwhile, the artists with them were observing the same trash through a creative lens. They were taking photos and collecting bits of it to incorporate into the pieces now on exhibit in Gyre: The Plastic Ocean at the Anchorage Museum. This hands-on exhibit opened February 7 and will be available at the Anchorage Museum through September 6, 2014. The Gyre project aims to bring perspective to the global marine debris problem through art and science.

NOAA Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace kicked-off the exhibit’s opening weekend symposium by introducing the topic of marine debris—its origins, composition, and impacts. The symposium, coordinated by Murphy, provided a chance for attendees to participate with scientists, removal experts, and artists in an interactive session exploring the issue of marine debris. They were able to discuss marine debris’ origin and impacts, as well as the cleanup and communication efforts, and how science and art can help us in understanding, capturing, and communicating the issue.

Learn more about our involvement with the Gyre project and if you can’t make it to Anchorage, take a look at some of the incredible art installations created from marine debris now on exhibit.

A quote by Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace displayed in the Anchorage Museum's "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean" exhibit explains how debris impacts large marine animals such as gray whales.

A quote by Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace displayed in the Anchorage Museum’s “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” exhibit explains how debris impacts large marine animals such as gray whales. (NOAA)


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Happy Valentine’s Day from NOAA

Man holding a trash bag on a beach and pointing to a heart-shaped piece of wood enscribed with "Love."

NOAA’s Nir Barnea, Marine Debris West Coast Regional Coordinator, finds a bit of marine debris “love” at the 2007 International Coastal Cleanup held in Seattle, Wash. (NOAA)

At NOAA, we put our heart into our work every day of the year—whether we’re cleaning up marine debris from beaches or modeling the (at times) curiously shaped paths of spilled oil.

But on some days, we take this a little more literally than others. As you can see in this video, our oceanographers have used the NOAA oil spill forecast model GNOME to show what it looks like when they put their heart into their work for Valentine’s Day.

Perhaps this hypothetical scenario might be what we should expect if a shipment of candy hearts were to spill off the coast of Washington?

Happy Valentine’s Day from NOAA!


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Using the Almighty Dollar, NOAA Marine Debris Program Empowers Groups to Keep Coasts Clean

The NOAA Marine Debris Program funds projects that remove old fishing gear and other debris from beaches and coastal waters.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program funds projects that remove old fishing gear and other debris from beaches and coastal waters. (NOAA)

The U.S. has a long and winding shoreline—95,471 miles of it—extending into bays, inlets, and the Great Lakes. This massive scale creates a challenge just as big to keep trash and other debris off our shores and out of our coastal waters.

Fortunately, the NOAA Marine Debris Program uses the power of funding to put much-needed dollars into the hands of worthy community groups, non-governmental organizations, tribes, local government agencies, and universities working to address marine debris in their areas.

In addition to funding projects like these, the NOAA Marine Debris Program coordinates, strengthens, and promotes marine debris activities within NOAA and among its partners and the public through regional coordination, research, outreach, and education.

Get It Out

Earlier this year, we awarded $967,000 to 11 removal projects ranging from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Some focus on abandoned vessels and fishing gear, while other projects aim to sweep plastics, Styrofoam, and other consumer debris from beaches and sea turtle nesting sites.

One innovative project in North Carolina establishes a pilot program to encourage commercial fishers to collect derelict crab pots from surrounding waters so they can be transformed into artificial reefs, creating habitat for oysters.

The NOAA Marine Debris Blog reports that “through this program, NOAA has funded 76 marine debris removal projects and removed more than 3,800 metric tons of marine debris from our oceans and Great Lakes since 2006.”

Keep It Out

Yet the easiest way to clean up marine debris is to keep it from getting into the water in the first place. This is why the NOAA Marine Debris Program also awards grants for outreach and education efforts to prevent marine debris. In 2013, we provided $949,512 to eight groups across the country to develop hands-on education materials and activities, curricula, workshops, and museum displays, as well to three scientific organizations to research the interactions of microplastics with the marine environment.

The Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean received one of these education grants, which they will use to support their traveling dockside education programs featuring “Hector the Collector.” Hector is a small, yellow remotely operated vehicle that dives in harbors searching for and gathering marine debris with its headlights, sonar, camera, and gripper claw. In addition to educational activities surrounding Hector, the Rozalia Project organizes beach cleanups, with aspirations of picking up 500,000 pieces of debris this year.

The projects funded through the NOAA Marine Debris Program typically last between one and two years but produce lasting benefits to the environment, fish and wildlife, and communities they serve.

To learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts to remove and prevent marine debris, head to marinedebris.noaa.gov.


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No Solid Mass of Debris from Japan in the Pacific Ocean

Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012.

There is no solid island of debris from Japan heading to the United States. Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. The barnacles on its bottom are a common open-water species. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

We’ve heard a concern from some of you that there’s an island of debris in the Pacific Ocean coming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For those of you who may be new to this topic, we’d like to address those concerns.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.

At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

We have some helpful resources for you, if you’re interested in learning more.

While there likely is some debris still floating at sea, the North Pacific is an enormous area, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the debris is or how much is left. A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years. As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.

NOAA has modeled the debris’ movement, and the model shows the overall spread of all simulated debris and an area where there may be a higher concentration of lower floating debris (such as wood) in one part of the Pacific. However, that doesn’t mean it’s in a mass, and it doesn’t tell us how much is there, it just shows there may be more debris there than in other areas. Observations of the area with satellites have not shown any debris.

Even though there’s no mass, addressing this debris is very important. NOAA has worked with partners in the states to monitor the debris, form response plans, and try to mitigate any impacts. We’ll continue that work as long as necessary. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to email us at MarineDebris.Web@noaa.gov.

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